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Old Myths, New Peoples: The “Eastern #Métis” and Indigenous Erasure – A Zine from Sabordage Distro

So-called Canada. The era of Justin Trudeau’s state-led reconciliation is desperately trying to keep itself alive. As it crumbles, something raw and real is laid bare (again): how desperate many white settlers are to get on the right side of history by telling and collecting stories about how different things are “now” from “back then”. One of these stories has always been about a romanticized, state-led version of reconciliation.

Originally published by Montreal Counter-Info.

*Note to the reader: This text is a compilation of excerpts woven together by a narrative written by the authors. When text is italicized, this means it is an excerpt from another text. The author’s name will be located at the end of this excerpt.

The era of Justin Trudeau’s state-led reconciliation is desperately trying to keep itself alive. As it crumbles, something raw and real is laid bare (again): how desperate many white settlers are to get on the right side of history by telling and collecting stories about how different things are “now” from “back then”. One of these stories has always been about a romanticized, state-led version of reconciliation.

Reconciliation – as a term – is about resolving a conflict, returning to a state of friendly relations. It can also mean the bringing together of two positions so as to make them compatible.[…] So how can the Canadian state reconcile with Indigenous peoples? They certainly can’t “go back” to a state of friendly relations because there never existed such a time. Reconciliation can only mean eliminating the conflict by enmeshing Indigenous and settler communities,[…]making conflicting positions compatible. This means assimilating Indigenous peoples by having them give up their claim to sovereignty in exchange for the promise of the economic equality within Canada. And it means Canadian people get to devour Indigenous ideas and symbols into their own settler stories, their own canadiana. This is the only path possible under the Canadian state (Tawinikay, 2018).

The state’s attempt to create this compatibility through a framework of reconciliation is one attempt among many to erase Indigenous peoples as a past, present and ongoing challenge to the legitimacy of the Canadian state, its foundational myths of Confederation, and settler claims to the territory it attempts to govern. Indigenous erasure is a way to secure a settler future.

The focus of this text is about the way white people contribute to longstanding attempts by the state to devour and consume Indigenous peoples’ cultures through stories and narratives that transform them into Indigenous people. We’re talking about the growing trend of settler self-indigenization, or “raceshifting” as many call it – a process through which white people reinvent themselves as Indigenous, often mobilizing these claims to undermine actual Indigenous people and their struggles for self-determination.

In “Quebec,” and east of us, specifically, we are witnessing huge numbers of white settlers self-indigenizing, in large part through the colonial court system. These self-indigenizing white people most often gather under the name of “Eastern Métis,” forming a wide variety of fake “nations” through which to lobby for state recognition and economic gain. These kinds of identity claims frequently reach the courts when individuals or groups seek hunting or fishing rights, or wish to counter land claims being made by Indigenous groups. While these claims have largely failed to stand up to even Canada’s legislative tests to prove Indigeneity, they are indicative of ways that whiteness continues to function as a tool of Indigenous erasure. We discuss in detail some examples of this phenomenon in later sections of this zine.

This zine collects a few long excerpts of certain texts we believe expand upon current theoretical and practical understandings of self-indigenization in “Quebec” and Eastern “Canada”. This zine is not intended to take a stance on Indigenous nations’ membership policies nor to tell Indigenous people who have been disconnected from their families, communities and cultures through colonial violence that they are or are not Indigenous. We are concerned simply with white people, white families, white communities, who are trying to build a political force in order to lay claims to land, hunting and harvesting rights, and other material gains at the expense of Indigenous people. Our goal with this zine is to equip ourselves and our communities with the information to counter this force.

We are not interested in fuelling the notion that the Canadian state’s legal frameworks designed to determine status or community membership for Indigenous people have any legitimacy. On the contrary, we wish to repeat what Indigenous people speaking out against raceshifting continue to put forward: that kinship ties are what determine belonging, and that membership in a given community should be able to be determined by that community, not by the state, or an organization of white people. We realize that Canadian legislation complicates and muddles the terrain for anti-colonial struggle. It is both a primary mechanism the settler state has to attempt to control Indigenous peoples, and at the same time, a mechanism many Indigenous people must often turn to to fight the state and capitalism. Through its attempts to curtail and create the conditions for resistance through its laws and surveillance, the state reinforces its narrative of being a legitimate, political and legal entity. This obscures the reality– the deepest angst of the state and settler society– that it is always a foreign, occupying force.

We write this in 2020 at a moment in so-called Canada when waves of economic disruptions have been sweeping across this occupied land in response to the RCMP’s raid on Wet’suwet’en land defenders protecting the Yintah from attempted pipeline construction by Coastal GasLink. The train, port and road blockades led by Indigenous communities (including notably Gitxsan, Kanien’keha:ka and Mik’maq land defenders) and backed by other actions – carried out by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters – have promoted and actualized a vision of anti-colonial struggle that moves far beyond statist promises of reconciliation. We also write in a moment when COVID-19 has also shut down Canada and its economy in a very different way, yet man camps still continue in Northern B.C as do many extractive projects across this continent. Once again, we see blockades popping up and injunctions being burnt in response. We position ourselves here because this raceshifting wave is not merely in tension with, but has, and will continue to, come into direct conflict with Indigenous land defenders and water protectors we seek to be in struggle with.

The writers of this zine are white, settler anarchists engaged in struggles against the Canadian state and settlerism. One of us is of Red River Metis and French Canadian (and other European) descent, and grew up sometimes hearing narratives equating the Indigeneity (or lack thereof) between those two ancestries. The other grew up in a predominantly white, Euro-American household. In this family, there were no stories about whose territory they were in (Ojibwe) nor how they related to the history or people of this land.

In another version of the story of our lives, the colonial ships that brought all the settlers over from Europe might have sank. In those timelines, these writings might not need to exist. But, this is not the version we are left with. Instead, it is necessary to participate in a discussion about white people, raceshifting and the way it accelerates Indigenous erasure. Self-indigenization is intimately tied to white supremacist desires to belong – to belong through the displacement of those who are seen as obstacles to our belonging, and to belong by creating myths of our own longstanding ancestral connections to the territories which we find ourselves on. These emotional and relational processes are what Tuck and Yang (2012) describe as “settler moves to innocence”. Understanding these narratives as moves to innocence offers a framework to address and dismiss the deeply colonial, white settler angst that propel these raceshifting fantasies and actions. Integral to raceshifting is storytelling; specifically, the stories white people tell ourselves and each other about a distant, Indigenous ancestor in order to give legitimacy to their process of self-indigenization. King (2003) writes, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous […] For once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world.”

The “Eastern Metis”

The phenomenon of self-indigenization in “Canada” is one with a long history; it is intimately tied to the long-standing, ongoing Canadian project of erasing Indigenous people for the sake of capitalist expansion through colonial settlement and resource extraction. One of the most common ways that white self-indigenization takes place in Canada is through claims to “Eastern Metis” identity. Self-indigenization in the context of the Eastern Metis refers to the “tactical use of long-ago ancestors to reimagine a “Métis” identity […] These “new Métis” often find legitimacy because of settler confusion over forms of Indigeneity based on kinship and belonging” (Leroux & Gaudry, 2017).

Specifically, what this looks like most often is white, french descendent settlers digging through their genealogical trees to find long ago (1600s) Indigenous ancestors and using this remote, isolated ancestor to identify themselves as “Eastern Métis” today. Further on in this zine, we share some detailed case studies concerning the Eastern Métis phenomenon and the histories of the groups leading the charge. But first, it is important to give an idea of the scope of this situation.

According to Canadian census statistics, between 1991 and 2016 there was a massive increase in the numbers of people self-identifying as Métis in Eastern Canada. In 1991, Quebec saw 8,690 people self-identifying as Métis compared to 2016 when it jumped to some 69,360 cases – a total increase of 698%. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1991, also home to large numbers of french descendant settlers, the difference was an even more drastic increase of over 10, 000% over the same period. There are more than 70 organizations representing those newly self-identifying as Metis in Eastern Canada, as well as additional similar organizations in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire (source: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/171025/dq171025a-eng.htm and http://www.raceshifting.com/ ).

The surge in “métis” communities in Québec: only the beginning?

Paraphrased from the source: https://www.raceshifting.com/

Demographic research in Québec has demonstrated that a significant majority of the descendants of seventeenth-century French settlers today have at least one Indigenous ancestor, likely from one of the thirteen Indigenous women who married settlers prior to 1680 (Leroux, 2018; see also Beauregard 1993). Due to the relatively small number of initial French settlers and the subsequent high levels of intermarriage among French-Canadians up until WWII, a large segment of the French-Canadian/Québécois population is likely to have multiple Indigenous ancestors. That said, having two, three or even five Indigenous ancestors more than ten generations ago represents no more than 0.1 to 1 per cent of a person’s ancestors overall (see Charbonneau et al. 1990; Vézina et al. 2012). In fact, the same research conducted primarily by Québécois researchers in French, strongly suggest that it is more likely that today’s French-descendant population has a greater number of English ancestors and ancestors from another European ethnicity (German, Belgian) than Indigenous ancestors (Leroux, 2018; see also Desjardins 2008).

Raceshifting and its myths

Stories carry individual and communal memories between generations, intimately tying one’s sense of being to a particular place, region, territory. Storytelling can be an act of preserving and asserting sovereignty over a place and/or community. Indigenous peoples’ struggles for autonomy and liberation from the settler state gain power through the transmission and integration of their stories over time. Struggles are carried on for generations, unfolding in their telling and retelling across decades and centuries. In the case of the Eastern Métis, however, storytelling has become the means through which white people eradicate their present day and historical complicity within settler-colonial processes. This eradication happens through a process of storytelling that relies on ancestral DNA testing, family mythologies, and genealogy and gains legitimacy through colonial legislation. Prompted by either real or imagined threats to land access, or a burgeoning self-indigenization movement of those around them, the infrastructure for self-indigenization (which includes DNA testing, Eastern Metis organizations, and genealogy forums and other resources specifically designed to find Indigenous ancestry) can be accessed to allow a white person to find a distant, real or imagined, Indigenous ancestor, often as far back as the 17th century, or 10+ generations ago. Armed with this supposed proof of their individual contemporary Indigeneity the white person in question can find others around them to reinforce their new identity, sharing stories as a means to legitimate their claim to lands, rights, and resources and create the conditions for others like themselves to follow the same path.

Discussing the relationship between narrative, power, land and imperialism, Said (1993) states:

The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future—these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative […] The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them. (xii/ xiii)

Most white settlers feel a deep, existential angst about not being from this land. This often manifests in a kind of compulsive need to find a way to legitimate their ongoing presence as invaders/occupiers. Many white people dealing with this settler-colonial angst turn to stories to alleviate this angst, stories that offer a pathway to belonging. Many too, create stories as an attempt to benefit economically from the land– to continue to gain from its exploitation as settlers. When white people try to self-indigenize or raceshift, our actions, attitudes, and stories contribute to ongoing attempts to deny and overtake the cultural and political lifeways that Métis, First Nations and Inuit peoples have on the various territories across the land currently called North America.

Tuck and Yang (2012) argue, “directly and indirectly benefitting from the erasure and assimilation of Indigenous peoples is a difficult reality for settlers to accept. The weight of this reality is uncomfortable; the misery of guilt makes one hurry toward any reprieve.” Deloria (1998) states, “The indeterminacy of American identities stems, in part, from the nation’s inability to deal with Indian people. Americans wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape they had to destroy the original inhabitants.”

The raceshifting narrative is one that continues the processes of displacement and erasure initiated by the early colonists that arrived to Turtle Island. Settlers are those who come from a different land/ territory, supplant Indigenous laws and epistemologies, become the law, and impose their origin myths over that given area. As King (2003) suggests, “you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.” The raceshifting occurring in Eastern Canada is supported by the stories told by white settlers in an attempt to remake history and try to secure the future of the settler state in this place. It is important to develop the ability to detect these stories, to make visible how they function in order to disarm their proponents and challenge settler self-indigenization when it arises in the broader struggle against the state and settler colonialism.

Tuck and Yang (2012) write, “everything within a settler colonial society strains to destroy or assimilate the Native in order to disappear them from the land – this is how a society can have multiple simultaneous and conflicting messages about Indigenous peoples, such as all Indians are dead, located in faraway reservations, that contemporary Indigenous people are less indigenous than prior generations, and that all Americans are a ‘little bit Indian’.” While their discussion takes place in the so-called US, there are significant parallels to the settler impulse and desire to belong that exist within so-called Quebec and Canada, and the particular histories of this place are worth attending to.

Why Eastern “Metis”, why Quebec and Eastern Canada?

It is not random that the nation to which so many self-indigenizing white people are claiming membership is the Metis nation. Eastern Metis movements capitalize on and further worsen pre-existing misconceptions about Metis-ness. Metis, as a post-contact Indigenous people, are often misunderstood to be Metis just on the basis of their “mixedness”, and thus as less Indigenous than First Nations peoples or Inuit. In Quebec and other french-speaking areas, this is further complicated by the fact that the word “métis” literally means mixed in french, and is used to refer to “mixed-race” people. Leroux (2019) explains the history of this linguistic confusion in his book, Distorted Descent, p. 4-6:

The idea of “métissage” has a specific lineage in French thought and linguistic practice […]. According to Pierre Boulle, the term “race” entered into French usage sometime in the late fifteenth century, most likely borrowed from the Itallian razza. “The term was first associated with lineage,” Boulle argues, “rather than fixed, physically defined differentiation between broad human groups”. According to Boulle, the term itself was not neutral, since for much of its first century of circulation it referred to innate or inherited character/ traits, especially those associated with aristocratic rule. Historian Guillaume Aubert concurs with Boulle, explaining that by the second half of the sixteenth century, “the term ‘race’ began to be used interchangeably with ‘blood’ to express the notion of ‘family’ or ‘lineage’” in metropolitan France. In Aubert’s understanding, the main motivation for the development of the concept was to regulate mésalliance, or marriage between two people of different ranks in society. Aubert explains further: “according to early modern French aristocratic ideology, the most dreadful consequence of a mésalliance was the type of children it produced. In most French texts of the period, these children were designated by the term ‘métis,’ defined in contemporary texts as the mixing of two different ‘species.’” In other words, in metropolitan France the term “métis” originated as a pejorative term that marked out the boundaries of social and political deviance along what resembles today’s notions of “class” and “race”.

Predating his European contemporaries by a couple of decades, French physician and intellectual François Bernier proposed an entirely different approach to understanding “races,” one based primarily on physical caracteristics, in 1684. Historian Siep Stuurman has called Bernier’s work “the first attempt at a racial classification of the world’s population, one that foreshadowed later anthropological understandings by more than a century. […]

The primary way in which the term “métis” is used in French today is in keeping with the legacy of Bernier’s seventeenth-century biological understanding of human “races.” Used in this sense, “métis” resembles the English-language concept “mixed-race”, though in Canada the term “métis” is used much more commonly in French than “mixed-race” is in English. […]

Despite its complex origins in the cauldron of colonialism, if, in French, the term “métis” was limited to a parallel usage of mixed-race, most of the linguistic confusion jumping to English would be resolved. The main difficulty with the term “métis” in Canada is that it is also used to refer to an Indigenous people in French (and in English). Using the term “métis” to refer both to biological mixture between two individuals imagined to be of different “races” and/ to a distinct Indigenous people with a specific history, relations, and territories on the northern plains inevitably leads to some misunderstanding. This linguistic confusion is certainly not the sole or principal basis for debate and/or conflict, but it is worth noting given the tense deliberations about the nature of indigeneity currently brought forward by the self-indigenization movement[…]

However, in addition to this linguistic context, the specific colonial narratives that circulate about French settlement play a role in the high numbers of French descendent white people in Quebec and Eastern Canada, formerly “New France,” raceshifting. Leroux (2019) explains, p. 8-9:

Generations of French Canadians and French-Quebecois historiography have cycled through a number of powerful narratives about relations betwen French settlers and Indigenous people. […]

Much of the recent historiography on the French regime has self-consciously sought to reconcile Indigenous people with French descendants through blurring the lines between whiteness and Indigeneity, mirroring a range of efforts in popular culture. According to these new origin stories, early French colonists and the Indigenous peoples whom they encountered created a novel form of “intercultural reciprocity, better still, an ethnocultural synthesis — a fusion of horizons — in which Quebec emerges as an entirely new society,” political scientist Daniel Salée has explained. “The image is a seductive one.”[…]

While all available evidence from the French regime (1608-1763) suggests that Indigenous women only rarely married French settlers, scholarly research and popular culture have nonetheless turned the “myth of metissage” into a relatively uncontroversial truth in Quebec and (French) Canada. At its basis is a nationalist belief in the innate kindness of French settler colonialism in New France, especially as it relates to its British (and to a lesser extent, Spanish) counterparts. (Leroux, 2019)

In addition to these linguistic and narrative specificities’ impacts on the Indigenous peoples whose territories are occupied by people who are raceshifting, there are also impacts on the People whose name is repurposed for the movement. It becomes necessary to distinguish the Métis people from the white people calling themselves Eastern Metis.

What makes the Métis an Indigenous people, they say, is the development of their own political institutions, linguistic practices, and cultural forms that depended on ongoing kinship relations with Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine and Dene peoples. “Métis are a people, not a historical process,” wrote Gaudry in 2016 for the Canadian Encyclopedia. Plenty of mixed unions happened throughout Canadian history, he wrote, but the children of most of those unions found their place in one of their parents’ communities—or both. “Historical Métis,” he wrote, were not the automatic result of “mixing,” but “were real human beings who had choice in the matter and who created a political and social entity on their own accord.”

(Leroux, 2018, Self-Made Metis).

As Gaudry (2018) writes in Communing with the Dead: The “New Métis,” Métis Identity Appropriation, and the Displacement of Living Métis Culture, supplanting contemporary Métis people and communities and replacing them with people whose claims to Indigeneity consist only of their:

self-proclaimed personal connection with long-dead Native people relies on and reinforces the continuing existence of actual Métis communities. It is the “discursive disregard of living Métis that locates the promise of Métis cultural revival in blood memory, genealogy, and lineal descent— connections to the dead— rather than a connection to the living culture of Métis communities. This is what Circe Sturm refers to as “a presumed void of Indianness,” the belief that contemporary Indigenous communities either don’t exist or are less capable of providing commentary about their own existence than authoritative outsiders, including those interested in reviving a lost identity. But there is no Métis cultural or political void to fill, no void of Métisness. (Gaudry, 2018)

Métis communities continue to exist, passing language, culture, and struggle through generations. What Métis, and other Indigenous people make clear time and time again is that membership in their communities and a right to claim connections to them is based on kinship and “who claims you”, rather than biologically essentialist, race based theories of lineal descent.

As Jennifer Adese, a Métis woman raised in Ontario, explains, being raised with a lot of exposure to “Eastern Métis” claims to Indigeneity skewed her understanding of what it was to be Métis. “I did not identify as Métis when I was younger because the claims of such people around me made me come to think Métisness was a vacuous thing,” because “nothing connected the people making the claims other than the claims themselves” (Adeese, Todd & Stevenson, 2017). In addition to the harm of this alone, the necessity of debunking the claims of the Eastern Métis can, according to Adese, take away from the work of anticolonial struggle against the impacts of colonization on the Métis Nation.

Current and past struggles by Métis people doing this important work have been used as fodder for the Eastern Métis movement. For instance, in judicial decisions legislating hunting rights for Métis people, white people have seen an opportunity to secure access to land and hunting grounds, especially when this access is “threatened” by land claims or other actions by the Indigenous nations whose lands they are on.

Raceshifting in action: Case study One

In October 2004, a small group of hunters gathered in a large tent in the Chic Choc Mountains, south of Gaspésie National Park. Raymond Cyr, the director of an organization that delivers education for people with physical disabilities, had joined his cousin Marc LeBlanc, a hunting and fishing guide, for the moose season. A tourist haven in the summer, the region becomes a hunting and fishing destination when the leaves start to turn.

Rugged four-wheel drive and all-terrain vehicles, fully loaded trailers and weathered campers crisscross the network of old logging roads off the winding path of Highway 299, which cuts through the stark limestone cliffs of the Cascapédia River valley.

[…]

LeBlanc had been active in the area since 1992. But as the cousins sat in their tent together that fall day, twelve years later, they faced a quandary: an agreement in Gaspésie between the provincial government and the Gesgapegiag Mi’kmaw community would set up a Mi’kmaq-controlled territory which would offer outdoor activities for a fee (in French, the term is “pourvoirie,” which refers to both the territory as well as the entity controlling it). Under Gesgapegiag’s plans, the territory would include an interpretative centre and hiking and horseback-riding trails, as well as outfitting services such as guiding, accommodation and meals.

The chief of Gesgapegiag at the time, John Martin, explained in a regional news report that the project aimed, in part, to decrease pressure on the local moose population by managing the number of hunters in that area. In 2005, 102 moose had been killed in the territory of the proposed project—seven by Mi’kmaw hunters, and the remaining ninety-five by non-Mi’kmaw hunters.

[…]

The agreement had been officially in the works since 1999; by the time of Cyr and LeBlanc’s hunting trip in October 2004, it was receiving substantial media coverage. If it went forward, it would join nearly seven hundred other privately operated outfitting territories in Québec, including about a dozen in Gaspésie and several dozen managed by Indigenous communities. It would have been the second pourvoirie operated by the Mi’kmaq, and, throughout the process, the Gesgapegiag negotiators had insisted that the project was central to their efforts to reconnect with their historical territory and build their economy, as it would employ about twenty community members. Nonetheless, many locals were angry. […]

Cyr and his hunting group were also upset. Facing the possibility of either having to pay a fee to access the territory or having to seek a new hunting territory—and already annoyed by the incursion of logging into the area—Raymond Cyr developed an alternative proposal. He, LeBlanc and a small group of hunters who hunted on adjacent territory had a habit of meeting in a communal tent every evening during the short moose season to discuss the day’s hunting. During one of their nightly get-togethers, according to court documents and the recollections of three people present, Cyr suggested that members of the hunting party claim an Aboriginal identity. Each, after all, likely had long-ago Indigenous ancestry—scholarly estimates in historical demography reckon that a majority of the descendants of early French settlers have at least one Indigenous ancestor. And in Cyr’s case, he says, he was sure that he did; his family had always talked about it.

But Cyr’s plan was met with some disbelief, as one fellow hunter, a police officer named Benoît Lavoie, expressed skepticism:

We’ve never had rights, only Indians have had rights, us, we don’t have any,” he said, according to court documents. Cyr boldly responded with four fateful words: “Read the Powley decision.”

(From Leroux, 2018, Self-made Métis – https://maisonneuve.org/article/2018/11/1/self-made-metis/)

The Powley Decision

R. v. Powley was the first major Aboriginal rights case concerning Métis peoples. The Powley decision resulted in “the Powley Test,” which laid out a set of criteria to not only define what might constitute a Métis right, but also who is entitled to those rights. Although the Powley decision defined Métis rights as they relate to hunting, many legal experts and Métis leaders view the Powley case as potentially instrumental in the future of recognizing Métis rights.

[…]

The Powley case outlined a set of criteria known today as the “Powley test.” This test is used to define Métis rights in the same way that the Van der Peet test is employed in defining Aboriginal (Indian) rights. Once a right is identified, The Powley test is a process that can be used to assess whether is the claimants are entitled to exercise Métis rights.

(From Tanisha Salomons’ & Erin Hanson’s (n.d), Powley Case https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/powley_case/)

Yet, since the Powley decision, there has been a remarkable expansion in claims to Métis identity in Québec, including from a number of new organizations (Gélinas and Lamarre 2015: 341). Results from the 2011 National Household Survey bear this phenomenon out: Quebec had the highest provincial increase in Métis self-identification between 2006 and 2011 at a remarkable 47 per cent, with an even more astonishing increase of 158 per cent between 2001 and 2011 […] To put it simply, the existence of a test for Métis identity, coupled with a fundamental lack of understanding as to how difficult that test is to actually meet, seems to have created an inaccurate roadmap to Indigeneity that various individuals and organizations are using to build their claims.

(From Vowel & Leroux, 2016, White Settler Antipathy and the Daniels Decision)

The Powley case influenced other Métis rights-based legal challenges, such as R. v. Daniels (2016).

Daniels v. Canada

The Supreme Court decision in Daniels v. Canada resolved an important constitutional question regarding which level of government has legislative authority over Métis and non-status Indians. Unfortunately, many of the organizations and individuals commenting on the case have been drawing sweeping and incorrect conclusions about the decision, often suggesting that Daniels clarified who is Métis or non-status Indian. These flawed interpretations of the Daniels case have led to an upsurge in white settler claims of Indigeneity, which will likely ratchet up tensions between settlers and Indigenous peoples, as well as among Indigenous peoples themselves, for years to come. While the undermining of Indigenous rights through these types of claims is a phenomenon generations old in the United States (see Sturm 2011), this tactic remains relatively novel in Canada. […]

What’s the problem with Daniels?

The Daniels decision has been welcomed by an incredible range of organizations and individuals. While there is certainly cause to be optimistic, particularly for Indigenous people who, over the course of the past few generations, have been disenfranchised by Canada’s colonial governance regime, there is also much with which to be concerned. In particular, we are troubled by how the Daniels decision, read in conjunction with several complementary SCC decisions over the past decade or so, has emboldened a range of so-called Métis organizations to claim Aboriginal identity and those rights flowing from it.

While the decision itself did not involve issues of identity or rights, the following statement, offered by Justice Abella on behalf of the Court, has been seized upon by self-declared Métis organizations: “Métis’ can refer to the historic Métis community in Manitoba’s Red River Settlement or it can be used as a general term for anyone with mixed European and Aboriginal heritage” (Daniels v. Canada 2016). The statement seems relatively banal but taken out of its context, the Court may seem to be arguing for a position that facilitates white settler nativist fantasies of being “Indian.”[…]

Current interpretations of Daniels tap into a long-held desire to erase Indigenous peoples by taking their place. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012) refer to this tactic as “settler nativism,” and describe it as a method of maintaining white settler privilege while claiming an Indigenous identity. In essence, such imaginative claims allow white settlers to feel that they belong on stolen Indigenous lands. In essence, such imaginative claims allow white settlers to feel that they belong on stolen Indigenous lands. This need for belonging seems particularly strong in Québec, where nationalist notions of a Québécois homeland exist in uneasy tension with Indigenous antecedence. However, Québec is hardly unique in this; the search for legitimacy and settler futurity exists everywhere that white settler colonialism operates.

(From Vowel & Leroux, 2016, White Settler Antipathy and the Daniels Decision)

Meanwhile, back in the Chic Choc Mountains with Leblanc…

Within eighteen months of their initial discussion in the tent, LeBlanc incorporated an organization he called the Gaspé Peninsula Métis Community (GPMC). Under that name, the group began lobbying against the Mi’kmaw project. “By following the right approach, there might be a way to obtain an injunction against this project [Aboriginal outfitters],” LeBlanc told a local newspaper in July 2006. “We’re going to tell the federal government that we have Métis people in Gaspésie and that our territory is currently being stolen.

We’ll ask the Government of Canada to give us time and the financial means to survey the number of Métis, write the history of the Gaspésie Métis community, and stop the outfitters project.”

Before long, the GPMC’s intervention as an “Aboriginal” people and the group’s broader political opposition had succeeded in slowing down the progression of the Mi’kmaw project, which was eventually shelved by the government. […]

Leblanc’s comments were just a harbinger of things to come. Twenty-five such organizations representing self-identified “métis” people in Québec have been created since 2004, about twenty of which were still active as of summer 2018. Data collected from organizational records and media reports show that ten of these organizations alone had at least forty-two thousand membership-by-fee at the end of 2017.

(Leroux, 2018, Self-made Métis)

Raceshifting in action: Case study Two

Across the St. Lawrence River from Gaspésie in Nitassinan, In Innu territory, a process eerily similar to the founding of the Gaspé group had unfolded eighteen months beforehand. The Communauté Métisse du Domaine du-Roy et de la Seigneurie de Mingan (CMDRSM) became the first Québec-based organization to attempt to meet the Powley Test as an intervenor in a case that went before the Québec Superior Court in March 2006. Known colloquially as the Corneau case, it involved the illegal construction of hunting camps on public land.

The CMDRSM’s creation—in Chicoutimi, at the head of the Saguenay River, just over a year before it intervened in the case—was directly tied to the negotiation of a comprehensive land claim in the area. The Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean and Côte-Nord regions have been home to an active, generations-long movement against Innu rights to hunt and fish. Starting in 1864, the government restricted the Innu from salmon fishing on the ribbon of rivers that flow into the lower section of the St. Lawrence. A protracted battle between the Innu and police, as well as white residents, who were backed by the government, carried through the 1970s and 1980s, likely resulting in the death of two Innu fishermen (while the Innu suspected that the fisherman had been murdered, no charges were ever laid). After this period, which came to be known as the “Salmon Wars,” Innu fishing rights were partially restored to most of the rivers in the territory as the government finally began to realize that its position was legally untenable.

In 2000, a framework agreement was announced that would have further recognized Innu harvesting rights over a large regional territory. Though the agreement was opposed by grassroots Innu activists—it would have meant waiving any rights to future litigation—it nonetheless led to a significant backlash among local white Franco-Québécois residents, including hunting, fishing and landowner organizations, as well as municipal governments and politicians. The opposition spawned three white rights organizations in the region, two of which were believed to have mobilized thousands of new individual and corporate members within two years—the Fondation Équité Territoriale (Organization for Territorial Fairness, or OTF) and the Association pour le Droit des Blancs (the Association for White Rights, or AWR). This “white rights” activism generally took the form of attacking the Innu framework agreement, with members speaking against it at public hearings and giving comments to media. […]

André Forbes, the founder of the AWR, became a key founding board member of the CMDRSM and the “chief ” of its Métis Côte-Nord “clan” in 2005, making him the de facto leader of its membership in a large region along the North Shore. Prior to his mercurial transformation into a “métis chief,” Forbes was one of the most outspoken leaders of the white rights movement in the region. In an article for Québec-City based daily le Soleil; he argued that the treaty negotiations represented “hateful politics that create social tensions like those in Israel.” At a rally, Forbes also coined the term “Red Taliban” to refer pejoratively to Indigenous peoples in the region, summoning a toxic mix of anti-Indigenous and Islamophobic symbolism.

(Leroux, 2018, Self-made Métis)

White settler stories of Eastern Métis as a move towards “settler nativism”

Since the white settler can apparently never return to their lost European homelands once generations removed, they continually appropriate, develop, and redevelop tautologies that claim Indigenous land, create‘realist’ representations of those lands that disrupt Indigenous ways of knowing, and invent an originary identity across time and space that is designed to regenerate itself anytime it becomes dislodged. (Wysote & Morton, 2019)

In this vein, simply because a story is told and retold does not make it true. Wysote and Morton (2019) explain that contemporary declarations of white settlers about their legitimate claims to land or an Indigenous ancestor – under the system of settler colonialism – remains an unwavering commitment to whiteness and settler futurity. Stories that turn white settlers into Indigenous people serve to naturalize colonial violence against First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples as though this current configuration of settler power is logical and irrefutable (Wysote & Morton, 2019). This is what Tuck & Yang (2012) identified as “settler nativism,” a move towards innocence to shake off the complicity within the past and present system of settler colonial violence.

Settler nativism

In this move to innocence, settlers locate or invent a long-lost ancestor who is rumored to have

had “Indian blood,” and they use this claim to mark themselves as blameless in the attempted eradications of Indigenous peoples. There are numerous examples of public figures in the United States who “remember” a distant Native ancestor, including Nancy Reagan (who is said to be a descendant of Pocahontas) and, more recently, Elizabeth Warren and many others, illustrating how commonplace settler nativism is. Vine Deloria Jr. discusses what he calls the Indian-grandmother complex in the following account from Custer Died for Your Sins: […]

Whites claiming Indian blood generally tend to reinforce mythical beliefs about Indians. All but one person I met who claimed Indian blood claimed it on their grandmother’s side. I once did a projection backward and discovered that evidently most tribes were entirely female for the first three hundred years of white occupation. No one, it seemed, wanted to claim a male Indian as a forebear.

It doesn’t take much insight into racial attitudes to understand the real meaning of the Indian- grandmother complex that plagues certain white [people]. A male ancestor has too much of the aura of the savage warrior, the unknown primitive, the instinctive animal, to make him a respectable member of the family tree. But a young Indian princess? Ah, there was royalty for the taking. Somehow the white was linked with a noble house of gentility and culture if his grandmother was an Indian princess who ran away with an intrepid pioneer…

While a real Indian grandmother is probably the nicest thing that could happen to a child, why is a remote Indian princess grandmother so necessary for many white [people]? Is it because they are afraid of being classed as foreigners? Do they need some blood tie with the frontier and its dangers in order to experience what it means to be an American? Or is it an attempt to avoid facing the guilt they bear for the treatment of the Indians? (1988, p. 2-4)

Settler nativism, or what Vine Deloria Jr. calls the Indian-grandmother complex, is a settler move to innocence because it is an attempt to deflect a settler identity, while continuing to enjoy settler privilege and occupying stolen land. Deloria observes that settler nativism is gendered and considers the reasons a storied Indian grandmother might have more appeal than an Indian grandfather. On one level, it can be expected that many settlers have an ancestor who was Indigenous and/or who was a chattel slave. This is precisely the habit of settler colonialism, which pushes humans into other human communities; strategies of rape and sexual violence, and also the ordinary attractions of human relationships, ensure that settlers have Indigenous and chattel slave ancestors. […]

Ancestry is different from tribal membership; Indigenous identity and tribal membership are questions that Indigenous communities alone have the right to struggle over and define, not DNA tests, heritage websites, and certainly not the settler state. Settler nativism is about imagining an Indian past and a settler future; in contrast, tribal sovereignty has provided for an Indigenous present and various Indigenous intellectuals theorize decolonization as Native futures without a settler state. (Tuck & Yang, 2012)

On Decolonization, Reconciliation and Erasure

Settlers who try to mimic stories of Indigeneity support and intensify state-led attempts to erase Indigenous peoples who are always already an existential and material threat to the legitimacy of the Canadian state. This is one reason the settler state will never be compatible with Indigenous peoples who are grounded in their territories, stories, cultures and protocols (Paraphrased from Tawinikay, 2018).

Visions of decolonization (led by Indigenous peoples), rather than reconciliation or self-indigenization require a certain level of acceptance of one’s settler position. We propose this acceptance not to promote “settler” as an individual identity we embrace, grow comfortable with, or fight to preserve. Neither do we promote any kind of settler futurity, but we propose this word to describe the kinds of relationships we, as settlers, have to the various territories we have come to live on, in many cases, over generations. Patrick Wolfe (2013) explains, “it is important not to be misled by voluntarism. The opposition between Native and settler is a structural relationship rather than an effect of the will. The fact that I, for example, am an Australian settler is not a product of my individual consciousness. Rather, it is a historical condition that preceded me. Neither I nor other settlers can will our way out of it, whether we want to or not. No doubt our respective individual consciousnesses affect how each of us responds to this shared historical positionality, but they did not create it and they cannot undo it.”

For settlers, Tawinikay (2020) proposes a direction:

See yourself for what you are, for who your community is. Act in ways that bring about a world where reconciliation is possible, a world in which your people give back land and dismantle the centralized state of Canada. Don’t romanticize the native peoples you work with. Don’t feel that you can’t ever question their judgment or choose to work with some over others. Find those that have kept the fire alive in their hearts, those who would rather keep fighting than accept the reconciliation carrot. Don’t ever act from guilt and shame.

And don’t let yourself believe that you can transcend your settlerism by doing solidarity work. Understand that you can, and should, find your own ways to connect to this land. From your own tradition, inherited or created.[end of excerpt]

Just as we are against empty, immaterial references to reconciliation by politicians seeking only to maintain colonial order, so too are we against the unhelpful proposals that decolonization be sought through an awareness that “everyone is Indigenous to somewhere,” or that everyone can become Indigenous to here.

“Decolonization is not an “and”. It is an elsewhere.” (Tuck & Yang, 2012)

“Decolonization […] is about repealing the authority of the colonial state and redistributing land and resources. It also means embracing and legitimizing previously repressed Indigenous worldviews.” (Tawinikay, 2019)

Bibliography

Adese, Jennifer, Zoe Todd, and Shaun Stevenson. “Mediating Métis Identity: An Interview with Jennifer Adese and Zoe Todd,” MediaTropes 7, no. 1 (2017): 1–25.

Beauregard Y (1993) Mythe ou réalité. Les origines amérindiennes des Québécois: Entrevue avec Hubert Charbonneau. Cap-aux-diamants: La Revue D’histoire Du Québec 34: 38–42.

Desjardins B (2008) La contribution différentielle des immigrants français à la souche canadienne-française. Annales de Normandie 58(3–4): 69–79.

Gaudry, A. (2016). Respecting Métis nationhood and self-determination in matters of Métis identity. Aboriginal history: A reader, 152-63.

Leroux, D. (2019). Distorted descent: White claims to Indigenous identity. Univ. of Manitoba Press.

Leroux, D. (2018). Self-made métis. Maisonneuve: A Quarterly Journal of Arts, Opinion & Ideas.

Leroux, D., & Gaudry, A. (2017). Becoming Indigenous: The Rise of Eastern Métis in Canada. The Conversation.

Leroux, D. (2018). ‘We’ve been here for 2,000 years’: White settlers, Native American DNA and the phenomenon of indigenization. Social studies of science48(1), 80-100.

Saskatoon Métis Local 126
https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=1751610371790141&story_fbid=2220680341549806

Tawinikay, 2020. Reconciliation is Dead: A Strategic Proposal.
https://mtlcounterinfo.org/reconciliation-is-dead-a-strategic-proposal/

Tawinikay, 2019. Autonomously and with conviction: A Métis refusal of state-led reconciliation.
https://north-shore.info/2018/10/22/autonomously-and-with-conviction-a-metis-refusal-of-state-led-reconciliation/

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society, 1(1).

Vowel, C., & Leroux, D. (2016). White settler antipathy and the Daniels decision. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies36, 30-42.

Wolfe, P. (2013). Recuperating binarism: A heretical introduction.

Wysote, T., & Morton, E. (2019). ‘The depth of the plough’: white settler tautologies and pioneer lies. Settler Colonial Studies9(4), 479-504.



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